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What It Takes to Glow
Jurgita Dronina is doing fouetté turns with her back to me. Facing the far wall, she builds momentum with the precise placement of each demi-rond-de-jambe. She apologized ahead of time, explaining with a self-deprecating smile: “I can't spot in the mirror. I'm always telling my partners, 'Don't worry, I'll turn fine onstage.' "
On this particular morning, the National Ballet of Canada principal is working before scheduled rehearsals to prepare for two upcoming galas in Taipei and Singapore. First on the program is Aurora's Act III pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty, a ballet she's performed numerous times, and I'm struck by how fresh the century-old choreography looks inside her body. Breathing into the retirés that mark the beginning of the solo, Dronina finds brightness and vulnerability. Her upper-body elegance extends into her port de bras and legs. But what she offers, first and foremost, is emotion. When she steps into first arabesque, her gorgeous extension comes with a surge of glee. She's actually blushing—exactly what you'd expect of Princess Aurora on her wedding day.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Dronina considers dance and acting inseparable. While she has earned a reputation for her unremitting work ethic—mornings that often begin at 7 am, with personal training and Pilates before company class—she says this is all in service to the foundation she needs to perform. “I want to go onstage and lose myself," she tells me. “I can't be thinking about anything technical. That's why I work so hard, so that onstage I've transformed."
Dronina was born in Saratov, Russia, in 1986, but she grew up mainly in Vilnius, Lithuania, where her family relocated when she was 4. She started out studying ballroom dancing—following in the footsteps of her older sister—and then moved on to gymnastics, but found it physically grueling to no justifiable ends. “It was useless to me—to break my body for nothing? I didn't see the purpose."
One day a choreographer came to the gym to lead the warm-up. Taking note of the 9-year-old Dronina's musicality and grace, he suggested she try out for the local ballet academy. For the audition, the somewhat bewildered Dronina improvised a hip-hop solo. “The jury didn't know what to think—but they started clapping," she says with a laugh. “Then they accepted me."
Dronina's physique might seem genetically predisposed to ballet, but she claims that this is an illusion created by relentless work. Training six days a week at the academy, she was often told that she probably wouldn't make it as a professional. “They told me, 'You don't have a jump, you don't have the legs, you're not turned out.' "
Soon, however, Dronina began competing at international competitions, winning gold and silver medals and proving her real power as a performer. After she finished her studies at the Munich International Ballet School, she accepted a position in the Royal Swedish Ballet from artistic director Madeleine Onne, who'd seen Dronina in competitions and been persistent in asking her to join. Onne cast her in soloist roles right off the bat, letting her attack the full spectrum of the company's classical repertoire. Three years later, when Dronina was just 22, Onne promoted her to principal dancer.
Yet the Royal Swedish Ballet lacked the variety she was looking for, especially in the way of new commissions. Hankering for more creative breadth, Dronina joined the Dutch National Ballet in 2010. But Amsterdam never felt like home, and within a few years her focus began to shift again, especially after the birth of her son Damian Ulysses in 2012. (Dronina is married to former Dutch National Ballet dancer Serguei Endinian.)
“I started thinking it wasn't the repertoire I wanted to dance until retirement," Dronina says. “Amsterdam wasn't the city I wanted my kid to grow up in. I was 29 and I thought if I stayed past 30, I might stay there forever."
She put her feelers out for a new company, wanting one with a good balance between classical ballets and new works in a big, vibrant city that her whole family would enjoy. Canada was an attractive option from the outset: Her husband grew up in Montreal (and danced originally with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens). They spent 10 days in Toronto and fell in love with both the city and NBoC. “The dancers were so friendly and supportive, everyone sharing ideas and approaches to the work," Dronina says, adding that she cried on the plane home. “I said to my husband, 'My love, I don't want to leave. I feel so good here.' "
Artistic director Karen Kain wasn't in the market for a new female principal dancer. But after Dronina's visit, Kain started to wonder whether she could make it work. “She was very special," Kain says. “She has lovely articulation in her legs and feet. And she's very technically assured—although I'm sure she doesn't feel that way." Kain raises her eyebrows knowingly. “And I really liked her. It seemed like it should happen."
Dronina's first season was full of the dramatic roles she thrives in. Last November, she danced Hermione in Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale, and loved what it demanded from her as an actress. “I talk in my head with every gesture," Dronina tells me, referring to the climactic trial scene in which Hermione pleads for her life. The next challenge came from La Sylphide, set by Danish choreographer Johan Kobborg. “I'd never danced a Bournonville ballet before and Johan was a great teacher. The style is so simple but so clear. You can't add anything on top of it, like at the beginning I wanted to do something extra"—she demonstrates a little épaulement—“and he said, 'No, no, no! Very plain. Very Bournonville.' It was a totally different approach." Her meticulous attention to detail paid off—reviews were unanimously glowing.
Dronina maintains a position as principal guest artist with the Hong Kong Ballet, now run by Onne, who continues to nurture Dronina's career. Dronina also recently curated, hosted and danced in a gala in Vilnius, celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Lithuanian Ballet.
Meanwhile, her family takes full advantage of Toronto, often attending museums, galleries, concerts and festivals. Family is a huge source of stability in her life. “When I met my husband, my life changed. He didn't judge my approach. He says, 'This is what ballet should be, so much more than performing steps.' Once I found happiness in life, I became happy in ballet."
Yet Dronina maintains that her work is still fraught with a sense of struggle. “You get a new body every day. You see me in tendus and I'm crying. I have sweat dripping into a pool below me."
And yet it's these challenges that make her dancing most meaningful. Once company class is over, she puts the grueling technical work aside and dives headlong into character, setting and emotion. “At 11:30 am, I'm done. I can rehearse Giselle." She meets my eye and her smile becomes radiant. “You achieve something and you think: Oh, it was worth it. Now I understand."
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
So far, the fervor to create diversity in ballet has primarily focused on dancers. Less attention has been paid to the work that they'll encounter once they arrive.
Yet the cultivation of ballet choreographers of color (specifically black choreographers) through traditional pathways of choreographic training grounds remains virtually impossible. No matter how you slice it, we end up at the basic issues that plague the pipeline to the stage: access and privilege.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."
My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.
"It just...always looks better in my head."
While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.
We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.
Christopher Wheeldon is going to be giving Michael Jackson some new moves: The Royal Ballet artistic associate is bringing the King of Pop to Broadway.
The unlikely pairing was announced today by Jackson's estate. Wheeldon will serve as both director and choreographer for the new musical inspired by Michael Jackson's life, which is aiming for a 2020 Broadway opening. This will be Wheeldon's second time directing and choreographing, following 2015's Tony Award-winning An American in Paris.
Wheeldon is a surprising choice, to say the least. There are many top choreographers who worked with Jackson directly, like Wade Robson and Brian Friedman, who could have been tapped for the project. Or the production could have even hired someone who actually choreographed on Jackson when he was alive, like Buddha Stretch.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
Let's start with the obvious: Over the weekend, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released a joint album, Everything Is Love. Bey and Jay also dropped a video for the album's lead track, which they filmed inside the actual Louvre museum in Paris (as one does, when one is a member of the Carter family). And the vid features not only thought-provoking commentary on the Western art tradition, but also some really incredible dancing.
So, who choreographed this epic? And who are the dancers bringing it to life in those already-iconic bodystockings?
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
This week, New York City's Joyce Theater presents two companies addressing LGBTQ+ issues.
When most people think of dance students, they imagine lithe children and teenagers waltzing around classrooms with their legs lifted to their ears. It doesn't often cross our minds that dance training can involve an older woman trying to build strength in her body to ward off balance issues, or a middle-aged man who didn't have the confidence to take a dance class as a boy for fear of bullying.
Anybody can begin to learn dance at any age. But it takes a particular type of teacher to share our art form with dancers who have few prospects beyond fun and fitness a few nights a week.
New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.
Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.
Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).